After eight people were murdered, six of them of Asian descent, in the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March, a clip of author Ocean Vuong talking about toxic masculinity and violence went viral.
"In this culture, we celebrate boys through the lexicon of violence. 'You're killing it.' 'You're making a killing.' 'Smash 'em.' 'Blow 'em up.' 'You went into that game guns blazing.' And I think it's worth it to ask the question: What happens to our men and boys when the only way they can evaluate themselves is through the lexicon of death and destruction?" Vuong said on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" in 2019. "And I think that when they see themselves only worthwhile when they're capable of destroying things, it's inevitable that we arrive at a masculinity that is toxic."
Vuong, 32, has become a celebrated voice, sharing his observations on culture and identity in addition to his award-winning poems and novels. He says his words are shaped by his experience growing up across a number of identities: immigrant, Asian American, gay and raised by a single mother.
"I don't sit down at the desk saying, well, I'm an LGBTQ writer. I just assume that I write will come out of that filter," he told TMRW.
Vuong's first critically-acclaimed collection of poetry, "Night Sky with Exit Wounds," was released in 2016 and won the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. In it, Vuong explores themes from his life, including queer love, the incarceration of a father he doesn't know and what it means to be American.
"(Queerness) made me a better person because I had to find different angles to the world. I couldn't just accept what was there."
Vuong's debut novel "On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous," which comes out on paperback on June 1, is a semi-autographical novel written as a letter from a Vietnamese American narrator to his mother, who cannot read. The story also touches on themes Vuong wishes he had seen growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, including queer love in a small town.
"I think of Robert Frost and his poem 'Two Roads Diverge,' and for queer folk, it's just one road. It's about trying to think how to really cut through the grass and the trees to make the other road and what you've learned on the way, what you discover in making that road, it enriches your life," he said of his inspiration. "And so I do believe that queerness saved me. It made me a better person because I had to find different angles to the world. I couldn't just accept what was there."
Vuong starting walking that road when he was 18 years old and about to travel to New York City for business school, but first came out as gay to his mother. Vuong recalled that he didn't have any visible gay role models growing up as an only child and a Vietnamese American immigrant in Hartford.
"I wanted to have a route to college in case I wasn't accepted (as a gay man)," he said.
When Vuong told his mother, who raised him as a single parent, that they needed to have an important talk, her first concern was whether he had gotten someone pregnant.
"When I told her, she said, 'Well, you're still you,' and she said, 'You're all I have,'" Vuong said. "It was really important for me, because it was not like the stereotypical response that you often hear about. It was just so accepting."
Growing up, Vuong said his perception of the United States was entirely shaped by the immigrant community he grew up around in a post-industrial East Coast town.
"As far as I was concerned, America was Hartford and the community I was raised in informed so much of my thinking and my imagination," he said.
Part of that thinking, as an immigrant, was that he needed to provide for his family and get a good job, which Vuong planned to do by taking the traditional path to business school.
"Like any other immigrant kid, I tried to go to school and you have a real quote-unquote profession to take care of my family and get them off the tenements," he said. "But I went to New York to go to business school. It didn't work out. I only lasted about four or five weeks. It wasn't much."
Vuong said he was too ashamed to go home, so he stayed in New York City instead, where he found queer role models and had a creative awakening.
"Coming to New York ... I realized, there's so many people that I could just blend in. It's like putting down your weapons, putting down your hyper-vigilance and finding relief among millions of people. That was very powerful because when you're visible in New York, you're visible on your own terms," he said. "It's like, I'm going to dress myself in a way that today I want to be seen. That's a power that some folks never had (in smaller towns). We never were able to be seen or unseen on our own terms"
Vuong couch surfed with friends and soaked up all the poetry he could find, whether it was at libraries or reading poems in the backs of bars, like Bar 13 near Union Square.
"And then I signed up eventually to (go to) Brooklyn College where I studied literature. That's where I kind of found a home for what I wanted to do," he said.
Vuong now lives in Northampton, Massachussetts, a town that frequently makes lists as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the United States, where he continues to write and teach in the Masters of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
It's the life he built for himself, but it's one he didn't even know was possible to dream of growing up.
"I never thought that I would ever live to have a home and a garden," he shared. "My family grew up in tenements and so, I'm soaking up the idea of creating a haven for my queer family. I have a backyard where my chosen family can come, now that everyone's vaccinated, for a barbecue and to just be at ease with each other.
"It seems like I'm in a parallel universe, and so I just felt that right now, I am trying to live slowly with it."
This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of queer history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.